The dog ate my clearance papers

Internet optional

Jamie and I co-author a cruising column for 48° North, a Pacific Northwest regional boating magazine. Our article for October offers anecdotes internet technology on board. Love it or hate it, it’s certainly changed a great deal about cruising. Puget Sound residents can pick up 48° North in boaty outlets, but anyone can read the full issue free online. Mostly, we think it’s a good thing, but it has made it a lot harder to blame your missing clearance papers on the dog.

Puget Sound boaters calling the verdant silicon forest of the Pacific Northwest home are more likely than most to recognize technology as a friend. On Totem, internet access and digital devices are an part of our everyday routine and make many basic tasks much easier than they were when we first dipped our toes into cruising in the 80s and 90s. The new world of traveling, afloat or otherwise, was hammered home when a recent visitor to Totem related with the air of a confessional that although it seemed old fashioned, she decided to buy a “printed” guide book for her trip to see us anyway. While technology has certainly made our lives afloat safer and easier, there is a flip side to many of the benefits. Here are some of our favorite examples on board, along with some cautionary tales to consider how tech is used whether you are bluewater cruiser, or a weekend sailor in the Sound.

The comments of our visitor notwithstanding, printed guidebooks are still an important part of our library. Perhaps our digitally native children will be able to flip and browse on a tablet the way I do with a hard copy, but I find the physical experience more effective for most needs. On the other hand, the internet is almost always the first resource checked after pilot charts when we choose a new route, especially as we stray beyond the boundaries of cruising guides. Checking for the latest information on clearance formalities, looking for the experiences of recent travelers, and seeing if there are raves (or warnings) play a bigger role than cruising guides in choosing our path.

Technology has changed the basic set of tools for navigation. Google Earth can provide a valuable view that complements on board charts, whether we have an internet connection or not: caching regional images beforehand keeps them accessible. Linked to a GPS, we found it to be more accurate in some places than our electronic charts and offering a valuable visual aid, such as determining a route into an atoll. Beyond onboard navigation, Google Earth and street navigation applications make it easier to get around in unfamiliar areas, especially where English isn’t the local language.

As quickly as we were enamored of tablet navigation, the importance of an alternate source became apparent.  We had looked forward to testing out Google Earth in remote parts of Papua New Guinea. We didn’t count on iTunes locking us out until we could download the latest version- a lockout that happened after we left the internet-friendly shores of Australia. PNG doesn’t build roads for most of its people, so you can imagine it wasn’t easy to find internet access sufficient to download the monster update file.  It took a few months before we could use the app.

It’s easier than ever to go cruising sooner or longer by using internet access to continue work. We have met cruisers engaged in a range of part time to full time employment including stock speculation, freelance writing, illustration, and more because they can work remotely. Anchored next to Totem in the waters off Pulau Tioman, Malaysia, is an Australian family that has been able to cruise for years because they remotely manage a business at home. The internet requirement does limit their choice of destinations, but they have still managed to cruise through relatively remote areas like Vanuatu. It just took a little more advance planning.

Ready access to a large body of information can filter destinations in another way, too. What is written (or, not written) about a place will influence where many choose to go. In some cases, it can open doors: our documentation of a safe route through Papua New Guinea prompted a number of other cruisers to change their plans and visit instead of skipping this fascinating place. On the other hand, wonderful places which miss out on anecdotal or blog coverage can be left off itineraries altogether.

All this great information can sometimes be misleading. Data becomes obsolete, rules change, and updates aren’t always consistent. We had the frustrating experience of using a list of service centers as a significant factor in our selection of a life raft brand. We realized too late that the manufacture lists centers which have long since stopped supporting the brand, and refuse to recertify. This became a serious problem when we were thousands of miles from another option and have a life raft increasingly past expiration, with ocean miles ahead.

For better or for worse, easy communications has also supported a new standard for official reporting. In Australia, visiting boats are required to give at least 96 hours advance notice of arrival to clearance authorities. It is assumed that this is understood and easy to act upon, although passages from countries nearby (New Caledonia, New Zealand, Vanuatu) can easily take a week. A vessel arriving into Coffs Harbor the same day we did in 2010 had failed to send their notification. It didn’t matter that they’d had just experienced a harrowing passage with equipment failure; the lack of notice cost them thousands of dollars in fines.

There is a dark side to all this great enablement that technology has brought. When you go out for a weekend cruise, does the way you use your cell phone / ipad / ebook reader get put in perspective, or is it as much of a distraction as it can be in everyday life? One of the wonderful things about getting on a boat and casting off is the opportunity to tune down the usual background noise of life, and instead be present to admire the world around you or reconnect with friends and family.

Instead of hanging around in a lonely phone booth on Nuku Hiva, it’s pretty great to be able to Skype from the anchorage to talk to loved ones. Some might debate the loss of the romance of remote and disconnected travel, but it’s still out there if you want to chase it, be that on the backside of Vancouver Island or the remote atolls of the Pacific. Meanwhile, instead of sending blue airmail envelopes folded from whisper-thin letter paper and hoping for the best, I’ll take the nearly instant gratification of email and appreciate what technology has done for our world.

Where do you land on the technology spectrum? Is internet on board an essential utility, or will you happily while away weeks away from connectivity?

8 Responses

  1. For sure Internet is an essential utility. We’ve only just begun our Cruising journey, but already the sometimes slow, other times non-existant connection is a change. I’m learning quickly that I must be patient and be ready for when the wi-fi feels good… My husband looks forward to those disconnected days… me, I’m not so sure. I do know that I have appreciated YOU having wi-fi as I always enjoy your posts!

  2. Great post regarding the modern world! While I also appreciate and prefer email now, I fondly recall writing and receiving those trusty blue airmail envelopes with the ghost thin paper “with a hope” that they would arrive post restante in the post offices I’d pick them up traveling and living in Asia or be received weeks (or months) later by their intended recipients. So, while the Internet and email is the great modern connector, I do miss those pre-Internet moments of expectation and thrill upon receiving a letter from a friend or loved one. And maybe it’s because those letters took longer to write, stamp and send, but the blue envelopes seemed to carry a thoughtfulness that email lacks. Keep up the great blog posts!

    1. There’s really no substitute for tangible communication. We do still write “snail” mail now and then and cherish the letters we get- few and far between since it’s an email world. thanks Nick!

  3. Wow, super surprising (and wonderful to hear) that you have Skype-quality wifi on the boat in Nuku Hiva. We’re starting to plan a Canal-Marquesas hop in April, and are trying to get more info on what wifi possibilities will be like out there. Do you know of any good list or website that maps decent wifi in anchorages in the South Pacific?

    1. I don’t know if anyone has mapped this. I suspect it’s too dynamic. In 2010 there were a couple of popular services- they all had bilingual instructions and you could sign up from the anchorage. It’s all expensive and usually slow (you do voice calls via skype, but don’t count on video- takes too much bandwidth and crashes the connection). Internet access was generally scarce and costly in most of the Pacific islands that we visited- except Fiji, where it was blissfully cheap! You’ll find it as you go… don’t worry too much, but don’t count on having it all the time either.

    2. Update for clarity: when I said “a couple of popular services” I was thinking about French Polynesia. Popular doesn’t mean fast or cheap of course, but hey it’s there! Tonga: find a cafe / restaurant and be prepared to be very patient. Fiji: get a local SIM and just revel in the internet for a while. Vanuatu: same story as Tonga. New Cal: ditto, although they probably have an infrastructure and you could get a local SIM. We didn’t stay long enough to worry about it.

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